"Check against delivery"

 

Dear Ambassador Bergmann,

Ladies and gentlemen, Excellencies, good morning.

I’m very happy to join you today at the opening of the World Nuclear Exhibition.

This is my first time here. And I was told, this is the first time a European Commissioner has ever spoken at the Exhibition.

True, the European Union is neutral towards the different energy technologies. But this means being attentive to the contribution that each of them can bring towards achieving our overarching goal, a decarbonised, fully integrated and more secure energy system by 2050.

And this includes nuclear.

So, I am grateful to Ambassador Bergmann for this invitation to the Exhibition, because this is the place where all the players of the nuclear sector value chain meet to discuss innovation challenges, technological trends, market outlook. And this gives me an opportunity to share with you and the other panellists, how I see the role of the nuclear energy in the EU energy system of the future.

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I want to begin with a consideration: the terms of the conversation around nuclear energy in Europe are changing. This shift is due, in my view, to three factors.

First, and most prominently, the challenge of our fight against a changing climate.

The energy transition will be one of the biggest deciding factors for reducing global warming to below 1.5 degrees. This year’s COP26 Summit in Glasgow has shown us that this remains within reach, but also how steep the road towards decarbonising the energy systems remains.

The European Commission has made it clear that the backbone of the future carbon free European power system will be predominantly renewables. Together, the Member States have committed to a reduction of at least 55% of emissions by 2030. And the EU aims to have at least 40% of renewables in its energy system by the same date. By 2030, 65% of electricity must be from renewables, the cheapest, the cleanest, domestically produced source of electricity.

But moving towards a growing share of intermittent production of energy brings challenges. The challenge of deploying renewables massively to get to net zero, the challenge of variability, the challenge of storage.  

There is a growing sense of realism about the need for complementing renewables with baseload electricity production.  This leads to a renewed interest for nuclear energy as a part of the new energy future.

The point is that right now, nuclear power is the most prevalent low-carbon source providing the baseload needed for the stability of the electricity grid. And also one that helps reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels, contributing to energy stability and security.

In our central scenarios, we foresee roughly a 15% share of nuclear across EU countries in 2050.

The second factor is the rapid technological innovation. Technological breakthroughs are bringing new solutions to old, and apparently intractable, problems, from waste disposal in deep underground storage to smaller scale installations that reduce the issues concerning location, long completion time and huge capital intensity of the classic nuclear installations. There is also a new momentum behind the research on nuclear fusion, with both public and private funded projects emerging.

Third factor, nuclear responds to the challenge of growth and competitiveness.

According to industry reports covering the then 28 EU member states, in 2019 the nuclear sector directly employed over three hundred and fifty thousand people. Indirectly it supported over 1 million jobs, and over half a million of those were classed as highly-skilled.

We are talking about an impact of over five hundred billion euro on GDP. And the estimates show that by 2050, the industry could grow to support more than 1.3 million jobs annually if the currently  planned investment are realised. Europe is also leader in some technological segments, and could export these technologies abroad.

Taken together, growth, innovation, and the net zero goals are putting nuclear energy back to the centre of the discussion on the energy transition.

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I’ve outlined some of the factors that are changing in the current public conversation the balance between disadvantages and benefits of nuclear energy. But if this is true, also the way the European Union itself looks at the nuclear energy needs to evolve.

Our policies also need to lean into this shift.

Safety is a word that immediately comes to mind when we think of nuclear in the European Union. And for good reason.

I believe this must and will always remain a priority part of the Union’s nuclear policy.

As long as almost half of our Member States chose to use nuclear energy, the Commission's role is to ensure that this is done in a way that ensures: (a) the highest standards of nuclear safety, (b) the highest standards of radiological protection for the workers and the public, (c) the appropriate treatment of radioactive waste in the medium and long term.

We have one of the world’s most advanced legal frameworks, rooted in the Euratom Treaty, which must continue to evolve to remain fully fit for purpose.

Nuclear safety is also the key objective of the fission-part of our Euratom Research and Training Programme mobilising around 150 million euro a year in direct and indirect actions. For this round of programmes, we expect to fund around 30 European collaborative projects that will start mid-2022. The Programme also supports research into the safety and licensing of SMR technologies. With a budget of 16 million euro, some of the best minds can focus on this issue of paramount importance and we are going to see more projects in the years ahead.

Euratom is also expanding research into non-power applications of ionising radiation, in particular medical applications, very important for our fight against cancer. It is strengthening the activities in education, training and access to research infrastructures with a total budget of €1,4 billion for 2021-25.

In parallel to its commitment to nuclear safety, at home and abroad, the European Union should stand strongly behind the development of innovation and research.

Small Modular Reactors are a great example. Global interest in these technologies is on the rise. In Europe, industry is responding to this emerging demand with several EU designs already under development.

We are providing backing with our EU research and innovation framework programme – Horizon Europe.

This support is only part of the puzzle. If we want to successfully deploy SMRs, we need to establish the supply chain to sustain it. I know that many of you in the audience today are the technological champions who will be vital links in that chain.

Because we are aware of the European potential in SMRs, we are supporting initiatives like the European SMR Partnership. This is a way to work with everyone involved, industry, researchers, customers and national authorities to develop the best regulatory approaches possible for SMR licencing. Next year can be an important year to turn a vision into a concrete Partnership.

We should also continue to support global collaboration on disruptive innovations.

Here, I am talking about nuclear fusion technologies. Of course, I have to mention ITER.

As an international endeavour, it is unique, a first of its kind. A joint project to build the world’s largest fusion machine. France’s contribution to this global undertaking has been crucial, as hosts and as providers of knowhow and resources.

During my visit to the site, in Cadarache, a few months ago it was good to see the project advancing - I know that we hope to start the full fusion power operation in 2035.

And in the meantime, the benefit for international scientific collaboration and the potential spill-over  effect for technological innovation is hugely significant. 

The third area where developments are calling for a gearshifts is on investment.

Today, the average age of the EU nuclear fleet exceeds 30 years. And according to our analysis, without immediate investments, around 90% of the existing reactors would be shut down around the time when they will be needed the most: in 2030.

Extending their lifetime, safely, requires between 45-50 billion euro.

And to keep roughly the same nuclear generation capacity as today more than ten Member States are planning about 400 billion euro in investments for new capacity installed by 2050.

These are significant investments and the cost of financing will play a key role in making nuclear energy production possible and competitive.

That’s why the discussion surrounding the inclusion of nuclear in the EU taxonomy is so important, and so polarised.

The credibility of the assessment leading to the inclusion, also in a transitional form, or exclusion of nuclear from the activities eligible under the Taxonomy Regulation, is of key importance. That’s why we have put in place a robust process to be in position to make a science-based decision.  

The proposal for a second Delegated Act will be ready in the coming weeks, as President Von der Leyen indicated at the October European Council. And it will clarify whether or not nuclear energy generation, waste disposal or fuel supply can be classified as sustainable activities for investors. The certainty on this point will help chart the way forward for many of you in the industry at a key point in time when investments are being considered.

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Ladies and gentlemen,

These are my views on the road ahead for the nuclear energy sector.

The next years will see important, structural changes in this sector. And if EU Member States wish to continue to rely on this energy source and exploit its remarkable potential for low carbon energy generation, including for hydrogen production for instance, if industry wants to live up to these new expectations around nuclear, everyone has to evolve, invest, change, while remaining vigilant on safety.   

This is the challenge I see ahead of us, and I look forward to continuing our dialogue and working together over the next months and years of my mandate.

Thank you very much for listening.